State Treasurer Fiona Ma, left, and Lt. Gov. Eleni Kounalakis, who were elected in 2018, rallied to support of Gov. Gavin Newsom, who faces recall. (Anne Wernikoff/CalMatters)

State Treasurer Fiona Ma, left, and Lt. Gov. Eleni Kounalakis, who were elected in 2018, rallied to support of Gov. Gavin Newsom, who faces recall. (Anne Wernikoff/CalMatters)

Why the recall election is unlikely to lead to California’s first female governor

More men running, cost is high, ‘likability’ factor

By Sameea Kamal

CalMatters

California may not come to mind as lacking in powerful women in politics.Kamala Harris rose from attorney general to U.S. senator to the first female vice president. Nancy Pelosi is in her fourth term as Speaker of the U.S. House. The state had two female U.S. senators from 1993 to 2021 — until Harris resigned in January to become VP.

But California has never had a female governor — and that’s unlikely to change after Tuesday’s recall election. Based on the most recent polls, the state’s chances of electing its first Black governor, Republican Larry Elder, are higher, but even that is looking like a losing bet.

Of the 45 active candidates for governor, just eight are women. (Another four are write-ins.) But Republican Caitlyn Jenner is the only one who has managed to garner more than 2% support in major statewide polls. And while women are overwhelmingly registered as Democrats in California, there are no big names among the four female Democrats on the ballot.

The state party made sure of that — discouraging any credible alternative to Gov. Gavin Newsom from running and encouraging voters to leave blank the ballot’s second question: Who should replace Newsom if the recall succeeds.

But there are also some long-standing reasons why the glass ceiling to the governor’s office is unbroken.

There is always a long line of ambitious male politicians who want to be governor of America’s largest state.

“There are men in political networks, deciding who’s going to run three cycles from now. If women aren’t in those mix of conversations, it becomes even harder,” said Kelly Dittmar, director of research at Rutgers University’s Center for American Women and Politics.

Another factor may be the cost of campaigning. California is “an incredibly expensive state to run in,” Dittmar said. The center looked at data from 2000 to 2018 and found it was more difficult for women to raise campaign funds — and even more so for women of color.

California’s size also makes it more complicated to build name recognition and connections.

There’s also the “likability factor:” Research by the Barbara Lee Foundation found that women face “a litmus test that men do not have to pass.”

Sometimes, women win statewide office in California and elsewhere in special elections after resignations or deaths, including deaths of their husbands. Sen. Dianne Feinstein — who lost a bid for governor in 1990—won her seat in a special election in 1992 after Pete Wilson resigned after he was elected governor. She has been reelected five times, most recently in 2018. Barbara Boxer was first elected to the Senate that same year, and won reelection three times before stepping aside before the 2016 race.

The right timing can help, Dittmar said. In 1992, a number of factors led to women’s success in California and across the nation, including the Clarence Thomas confirmation hearings for the U.S. Supreme Court, which highlighted women’s underrepresentation, especially in the Senate.

“Feinsten and Boxer didn’t win because it was the ‘Year of the Woman,’ but many of the contextual realities that made it the ‘Year of the Woman’ likely contributed to their emergence and success,” Dittmar said.

The roadblocks of money and old boys’ networks may not be as daunting for lower offices.

Reflecting national trends, California has its highest percentage of women serving in the Legislature — 39 of 120 legislators. Four female Democrats hold statewide office, with Eleni Kounalakis as the first female lieutenant governor, Shirley Weber as secretary of state, Fiona Ma as state treasurer and Betty Yee as state controller.

Still. California is one of 19 states that have never had a female governor and the only one on the West Coast. Oregon and Washington state have women in the top office today. In all of U.S. history, 45 women have served as governor, compared to the 41 male governors in office now, notes Dittmar.

“While we’re making progress, and are celebrating the wins along the way that are putting those cracks in the glass ceiling, they are still not reaching the same levels of success as men,” Dittmar said.

There aren’t exact factors that predict which states will have female governors;for example, there isn’t a partisan divide. And, as in California, a state with a legislature with many women doesn’t mean a female governor is more likely.

In fact, in some states, it’s the reverse: Where women haven’t fared well at the legislative level, they have had more success running for governor. But once a state elects a female governor, it makes it easier for the next female candidate by “softening the ground,” Dittmar said.

Campaign trail frustrations

But in the recall, female candidates have been hitting rocky soil.

Consider Jacqueline McGowan. The 47-year-old cannabis advocate from Napa is one of the most active candidates and is billing herself as the Democrats’ “insurance policy.”

She’s against the recall, but said she was “astonished” that the Democrats had “decided not to field a single candidate as insurance against a potential takeover from the Trump wing of the Republican party.”

“This has been the most challenging thing I’ve ever done in my life,” said McGowan, who worked on Wall Street for nearly two decades, and has spent the last seven years as a cannabis industry lobbyist. “Trying to cram a two-year campaign into 68 days since I made the decision and qualified — and then turning a one issue platform into a full-blown campaign.”

She’s been on the campaign trail, going to Republican events, doing interviews and posting on social media. She’s also been engaging in virtual, and now physical, skirmishes with Kevin Paffrath, the top-polling Democrat among the replacement candidates, and with Elder, the leading Republican.

On Aug. 29, McGowan showed up to a service at the Lancaster Baptist Church, where Elder was speaking. She challenged him to a debate, after which, she says, Elder’s security detail “manhandled” and detained her for interrogation. McGowan filed a report with the Lancaster Police Department, which charged the security detail with battery. Elder’s campaign disputes the charges.

As for Paffrath, she has called him out on social media for “impersonating a Democrat” and filed a cease-and-desist order.

Despite campaigning nonstop, McGowan hasn’t garnered as much traction, or media coverage, as the leading candidates. The Democratic Party’s message to voters isn’t helping, either.

“The fact that the California Democratic Party is telling people to leave question two blank is so incredibly offensive,” she told CalMatters. “I’m the only Democrat that doesn’t support the recall. Why in the world are they not backing me?”

Still, she hopes to finish in the top three. Then McGowan is eyeing a possible run for Congress.

Among the more crowded field of Republicans and those running with no party preference, female candidates aren’t doing much better.

Jenner, the reality TV personality and transgender activist, made waves when she first announced her campaign. But she faltered in her first interviews and press events, went to Australia in July to film a “Big Brother” series and never regained momentum when she returned to California. In a poll released Friday, she was tied for ninth place, with 1% support among likely voters.

Jenny Rae Le Roux, a business owner from Redding and a former Bain consultant, has also been on the campaign trails. Le Roux, who describes herself as a “Republican, pro-business fiscal conservative.”

She’s raised more than $600,000 to date, with at least $200,000 from her own pocket. In another state, that would have made her a front-runner, she said in an interview.

“The fact that you have just a mix of geographies, really reaching people across the state is very expensive,” she said. “It’s a hurdle, but it’s an important hurdle.”

Le Roux said the number of candidates in the recall election means you have to really differentiate yourself — and that’s easier for candidates with extreme viewpoints. “Being someone who is in the middle, very practical — that’s a little less sexy and less spicy,” she said.

Le Roux said that when starting off her campaign, she was told that she would “outwork, outraise,” and still not get the same media attention as her male counterparts.

“I didn’t want to believe that that would be true, but it absolutely has been. And that’s incredibly frustrating.”

Candidate Jenny Rae le Roux has called her recall campaign frustrating because women haven’t received as much attention as men. (Courtesy Jenny Rae for Governor)

Candidate Jenny Rae le Roux has called her recall campaign frustrating because women haven’t received as much attention as men. (Courtesy Jenny Rae for Governor)

Sarah Stephens, 39, is a pastor from Riverside County running as a Republican. An avid supporter of former President Trump, Stephens has taken part in events and rallies and recently made headlines for helping an alleged assailant flee a protest in Los Angeles.

Others in the race include Angelyne, the Southern California “billboard icon” known for cruising in her pink Corvette. Her platform includes a statewide “Bubble Bath Day,” and an annual masquerade ball where everyone would dress up as governor. Holly Baade, a spiritual teacher and coach, and Heather WJ Collins, a hairstylist, have mostly campaigned via Facebook posts.

CalMatters is a nonprofit newsroom committed to explaining California politics and policy.

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